Closing the Gap
(The Proven Formula vs Evolving Styles)
by Jonathan Dickau
In today's music, there are a large number of factors which go into the process of defining the styles and categories by which the various artists are sorted. As I stated in my October article (Bridging the Genre Gap ), there is a reason for categories to exist, whether in radio formats, sections in a record store, or the departments of a record company. The process of creating such categories has drawbacks, however, especially when innovative musicians devise something truly original. Of course, record company people are always on the lookout for 'the next big thing', but the music industry tends to reject what it doesn't already have an outlet for, because it costs too much to develop a whole new marketing channel. The major labels will often wait for an independent to develop a new market, instead, and then buy the company.
The elements of style represent a musical reality through which the dreams of an artist or songwriter can be communicated to an audience. Particular melodies, rhythms, and harmonies arise out of the individual's unique experience, or out of their imagination, which represent the feelings, opinions, and aspirations of that person. In some cases, what is being shared is something very private and personal, with secret meanings to the composer or lyricist. The stylistic elements usually have a broader context, however, which can be noted. The temptation, for those who study the music after the fact, is to assume that by understanding the stylistic context, one can define a set of parameters which represent a certain style, a group, or an artist, and is somehow equivalent. The creative aspect of evolving musical styles is portrayed as being more cultural, situational, or traditional, and far less personal than I believe it really is.
Classical music certainly doesn't escape this kind of scholarly misconception either, at least in the common view. The great composers of the past were not so stodgy and conventional as most of the people of their time. The play and movie "Amadeus" showed us that Mozart was far more human, in his childlike charm, than many modern humans would ever know, but he was not alone. Johann Sebastian Bach is the father of music theory, but not because he ever wrote down a set of rules, nor because he followed all of the rules. He was an innovator, and a master improvisor, but he braved so much new ground, and did it so well, that those who followed him felt compelled to figure out a set of rules by which such works could be molded.
First there is innovation, then the boundaries of a new style emerge from the comparisons with what has gone before, and the attempts of others to create something similar. This is the master pattern by which all great music should be advanced, but sadly that is not always the case. Many top performers have become, and can only remain popular by working a proven formula, and this formula is dictated by the stylistic elements which have become associated with a particular style or genre. Country artists, for example, will often try to copy the Nashville sound, even if they are playing, and recording, far from Tennessee. Artists may champ at the bit, but have a hard time getting record company support if they don't follow the formula.
In the June '92 issue of "Guitar Player", Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits tells the interviewer that he would like to do a country song with a very loud, distorted guitar, but it's not allowed. "Rock and Roll won't play it, Country won't play it, but that's the music I really like.". He goes on to tell the readers to focus on being soulfully musical, and not on the marketplace. "The music business is something that is completely and utterly separate from music.", in his opinion. For unknown musicians who are struggling to make it, however, this can be only partially accurate. In order to make a living as a musician, you may have to compromise somewhat from an absolute standard of 'art for art's sake'. Does this mean that in order to make it in music, you have to sell out?
Mike Mindel of Blue Law says "I have a hard time understanding why people say 'they sold out!', as if they were betrayed, when musicians they once liked change their style to increase record sales.". To Mike, music is a profession, as well as his favorite hobby, and he's in the business to make money for himself, his band, and his record company. "I want all of my records to sell out", he adds "but there will always be music I play only for pleasure. Nobody can take that away.". Thus, he makes it clear that he does what is required in order to make a living by playing, but he also intends to continue growing artistically. Mike's band, Blue Law, is the very embodiment of a well proven formula (the blues), and they are doing rather well indeed.
His strategy seems a prudent course of action for an aspiring musician, but what effect does this have on the evolution of music as a whole? Do we diminish the spectrum of available music, when musicians give in to industry pressures to conform? Are we fooling ourselves to think that our individuality is more important than commercial success? Do we really need to make a choice, once and for all, or can we change our minds and pursue a different style later? The current answers to these questions may not be to our liking, but the situation could change rapidly, and in fact is changing more rapidly than ever before.
It should be noted that the real purpose of music is to communicate with and entertain people, so music with meaning, feeling, and a beauty all its own will eventually win people over. But, this can happen only if this music is heard! People in other parts of the civilized world are exposed to a much broader range of new musical styles than record companies, and commercial radio stations, in the USA have chosen to promote. In many ways the music business in America is behind the times, as people all over the world are embracing the cross-cultural evolution of new music, and musicians doing the same thing here, in the US (and in our Hudson Valley), have a hard time getting paid to play at all. It seems that the music biz would rather reinforce the cultural stereotypes which keep the races separate, than support artists whose work serves to help break down the walls.
Musicians should be encouraged to learn a variety of styles, and to combine different styles, in the process of evolving their own unique style. People who do music for a living shouldn't have to be contented to stay in a rut for the rest of their life, making album after album which sounds the same. The time has come for the Land of the Free to foster some freedom among the musicians on her own soil, and not force them to look abroad to find a record deal. The same wonderful process which is happening in places like London, and Madrid, is happening right in our neighborhood, as well, and it's about time somebody took notice.
©'94,'99 Jonathan J. Dickau
This piece was written for Rhythm and News Magazine, as a followup to my October, '94 article Bridging the Genre Gap, but it was never published.
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This page posted on
January 20, 1999